Thursday, November 19, 2015

Environment Develops Intelligence

It's kind of tragic that, in American culture at least, "book smarts" has fused together with the term "intelligence."  I feel that public awareness of the differences between terms has slowly been increasing these past few years.  But old habits die hard.

"Book smarts" implies an ability to memorize information and regurgitate facts.  It is unfortunate that our public school system relies so heavily on this term since it usually has very little to do with the challenges of post-school life.

Intelligence, on the other hand, has to do with one's ability to apply learned information to different situations.  An intelligent person is one who is able to perceive information, retain it as knowledge and then later apply that information to an environment.

I think that the most interesting thing about intelligence is that good genes alone will not determine the resulting human.  From what most studies have shown, environment must be there to develop natural intelligence.  Culture has the biggest impact on cognitive development, though research has shown that no one culture produces more intelligent individuals than another.

If you think about what this means from a learning perspective, the implications are huge.  It means that contrary to the popular notion that there are "smart kids" and "dumb kids," a child's lot in life is not set in stone.  Intelligence levels can change, even through adulthood.

Shinichi Suzuki was lightyears ahead of his time by introducing this concept that "every child can learn."  He turned out to be exactly right.  He didn't care about producing conservatory bound musicians, he just wanted to use music to help shape a child's life.  Even if a child chooses to eventually discontinue lessons, the shaping has still taken place.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Physicality of Music Part 3

Yes.  Disc golf taught me how to practice.

And it looks like this:

I started playing ball golf casually while in college.  So when I heard about disc golf it was a very natural segue.  Honestly, when I first started playing disc golf, I enjoyed it enough to keep playing sporadically but little else.  Throwing the discs is challenging so I made an effort to try and improve mostly so I didn't lose them.

The thing is about disc golf is that it has a very grassroots feel to it.  Tons of people play it--it's the fastest growing sport in the USA--but it doesn't have the "snooty" factor of ball golf.  The general mechanics of throwing are simple and then after that it comes down to style.  There are tons of different throwing styles and they all work.

After sporadically playing disc golf for a year my musical training finally got the better of me and I decided I wanted a lesson on how to throw.  This was easier said than done because, as mentioned before, there's the grassroots element.  Tons of people play but very few offer anything other than casual tips.  But I did eventually find a pro that offered lessons.  What he gave me was the fundamentals.  He showed me how to throw in a way that worked with the how the discs were designed.

This was huge for me.  After a lifetime of playing extremely complicated concertos, being shown how to throw a disc was like sitting down at a piano with only one key.  Unlike ball golf, there really wasn't much to understand other than just physical practice.

What made disc golf so different from all the other physical activities I had done previously was that as soon as I saw that first good drive at my lesson, I wanted to make myself improve.  I wanted to drive further or putt longer.  And my ability to do this had nothing to do with how many lessons I went to or teachers telling me I could progress, it boiled down to sheer physical practice.

There's nothing vague about disc golf.  Anything goes.  There's less emphasis on perfect form like there is in ball golf because disc golf uses natural obstacles.  No one has perfect form when balancing precariously on two rocks with running water underneath.  And even if you launch your disc into a bush with a bad throw you can still make it up with two other good throws.  The only thing that matters is how many throws it took to get it into the basket.

This completely changed the way I thought about music.  Playing an instrument has way more layers to it than disc golf.  As I mentioned earlier in this series, the emotional element alone is worthy of its own discussion.  But these extra layers are just overwhelming if you try and think about all of them.  Disc golf made me realize that underneath all those layers there is just simple mechanics.  If you miss a note, it doesn't mean you're a bad artist.  It just means you have to reset your form and try again.

This was a powerful lesson for me because I finally realized (after playing the violin for more than twenty years) that I had a lot of emotional baggage attached to my personal progress on the instrument.  It did not even matter what the emotional baggage was about, it was just there and it kept me from moving past a certain point in my playing.  I had subconsciously decided that I was fine with my current "artistic level" (whatever that means) and I wasn't going to move past it.

After playing disc golf I came to terms with the fact that I don't really have to push my artistic/emotional level past a certain point.  But there was absolutely no reason why I couldn't become more mechanically proficient.  If I wanted a stronger vibrato I was just going to have to do vibrato drills the same way I do putting practice.  And, ironically, mechanical proficiency has helped me add more feeling to my playing.      

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Physicality of Music Part 2

I was never a big organized sport person while growing up.  I did kung fu and I would shoot hoops outside but the coordination of a team effort somewhat eluded me.  I liked doing "my thing" rather than going to practice and doing drills for a "team thing."

I played in youth symphonies.  While you are playing as a group with the symphony it still felt like I was doing "my thing" rather than a "team thing."  If you don't know how to play a section of music, it's up to you to go home and figure it out.

The long story short is that I never placed myself in a position where I had to really examine my own mechanical proficiency.  Kung fu taught me endurance but I relied on a teacher to tell me if I was ready for the next belt or not.  Same for private music lessons and progressing through pieces.  Orchestra gave me that team experience but I only ever had to push myself hard enough at home so as to avoid messing up too much in rehearsal.  I never had to go beyond that.

I would like to make clear that I had an excellent musical education growing up.  The problem was not my teachers or the environment it was just me being me.  I'm not the type of person that feels the need to exert myself beyond a certain point if I don't have to.  I'm incurably efficient.  Even at a young age I would see that I could practice five hours a day and it would lead me to maybe moving up a few stands in orchestra.  But moving up a few stands would in no way affect my orchestra experience so why bother practicing that much?  I was happy with what my actual level of effort got me.

So fast forward a few years to when I became a Suzuki teacher.  Teaching and learning how to teach certainly changed my point of view on a lot of things.  But an unexpected and powerful lesson came from taking up disc golf.  It was the first time I ever cared about training myself.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Physicality of Music Part 1

No one ever questions the physicality of a sport.  And it's really no wonder.  The results of a physical game are more black and white.  You either make the basket or you don't.  There's certainly an emotional element to sports but this is secondary to physical performance.  Baseball is a prime example of this.  Every professional sport has stats but baseball fans love statistics.  Every run, hit or strike is accounted for.  You could replay an entire game in your head by just looking at the numbers.

Music is a little different.  It's less black and white.  You don't win or lose at your performance, you feel like you sounded "good" or "bad."  Even worse is that this concept of sounding good or bad is even more vague because it boils down to personal taste.  What one person views as "good" music might be different from what someone else views.

Yes, there might be some general consensus on what is held up to be good music.  But this is still no accounting for taste.  If you don't believe me, look up any classic piece of literature on Amazon.  They all have a healthy number of bad reviews.  All of them.

This adds an interesting psychological element to the musician that sports players don't experience to the same degree.  In order to strive for "good" music, a musician must put a little bit of emotion into the playing.  Mechanical proficiency is simply not enough.

The emotion put into music is another entire topic in and of itself.  It is necessary in order to truly explore the range of an instrument.  However, there are some drawbacks to having this element in music.  In having such vague emotional demands placed upon her shoulders, it is easy for a musician to overlook the physicality behind training.  Even though playing an instrument cannot consist of only mechanical proficiency, "good" music starts at that level.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Sense of Quality

I've noticed another subtle change in my students after the introduction of the review chart.  I find this change the most interesting so far because it was something that bothered me as a teacher but I didn't know how to word exactly what it was that was bothering me.

The issue boiled down to having an internal sense of quality.  Before I go any further on this topic I'd like to clarify that I have completely realistic expectations when it comes to children and their artistic sensibilities.  In no way did I ever expect an 8-year-old boy to feel the romantic yearning undercurrent to Brahms' Waltz.  Girls are still totally gross... I get it.

But as I teacher I do feel that it's my duty to plant the seeds of quality in their brain.  In other words, it's important to establish a standard.  They need to know how far others have pushed the boundaries of an instrument in order to have something to strive for.  I don't feel like musicians should berate themselves for every little mistake but it's necessary to have that internal filter.  You have to be able to objectively ask yourself, "Ok, that didn't sound all that great, what went wrong?  How can I fix it so it sounds better?"

Therein lay the problem.  Many of my students were totally fine with the piece sounding "average" and then just leaving it at that.  By average I mean playing the piece without much expression or dynamics and maybe missing a handful of notes that could have easily been cleaned up with five minutes of drilling.  Unless I demanded a higher standard from them in the lessons, they were ok with that "C- work."  There was no incentive for them to strive for "A+ work."

This did concern me but I always assumed it was a maturity thing.  So long as I maintained an "A+ standard" in the private lessons then they would eventually learn when they were old enough to understand, right?  Well, yes and no.  I still think this is true to some extent.  Age and general life experience definitely has an impact on what you can pull out of a piece.

But there's another subtle element to this that I was missing and that was being able to hear yourself play.  All this time I was so focused on having students listen to other people play (which is very important, don't get me wrong) that I missed the importance of just listening to yourself.  And that's what the review chart has really brought to light.

It's now been about two months since I started using that review chart and cracking down on students knowing all of their review pieces.  I think the most noticeable change happening now is that they are now starting to hear the difference in their playing.  Most of them are now beyond the relearning notes to pieces they forgot phase and, consequently, they are now starting to hear themselves play at a much higher level for more advanced pieces.  They now know that they are capable of "A+ work," which, in turn, makes them more motivated to strive for that level.